Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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One Mile Away

This post was contributed by Emma Pearson, a MSc Politics student at Birkbeck. She also writes for dailyinfo.co.uk and blogs at emmalouisepears.wordpress.com.

The first event leading up to Birkbeck’s Surplus: Waste, Wealth, Excess forum in June was a screening of One Mile Away by Penny Woolcock, a documentary at once fascinating, subtly flawed, and an engaging trigger for debate.

It traces the fledgling peace efforts of two warring Birmingham gangs, following in particular two young visionaries for peace, Dylan of the Burger gang and Shabba from the Johnsons. They work tirelessly to recruit fellow gang members and elders to their cause, warn the younger generation away from violence, and soliloquise over the graves of its victims. All this is interspersed with rap performed by their recruits – a tell-tale sign of the theatricality underlying the facts.

Anthony Gunter, lecturer in criminology at UEL and author of “Growing Up Bad: Road Culture, Badness and Black Youth Transitions in an East London Neighbourhood”, led the discussion after the film. It is, he argued, very easy to categorise inner-city violence under ‘gang warfare’ and forget about it. It’s nicely self-contained, outsiders need not trouble themselves with any deeper causality, and David Cameron can label the 2011 riots as “criminality, pure and simple” without too much responsibility coming his way. For the media’s part, gangs are a well-understood drama. It’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, tribal war. There is no need for context, and One Mile Away gives very little.

But context should be everything, because the situation facing many young black males in Britiain’s cities today is dire. Lack of education, meagre employment prospects and a broken down relationship with the police mean that many feel – and are treated – like surplus population. The ‘road culture’, far from its roots in the Caribbean drive towards social being and outdoor living in the cradle of the community, has become a thing of chaos – something aptly illustrated by Woolcock’s film. Shootings and stabbings abound in the silences between camera takes, but no one really knows where, or why, or even who. The one time when details are given, it turns out the dispute was about money, not gang membership at all.

So on the part of the young men in the film, perhaps the gang narrative – the regurgitated language of the press – is at least partly a means to impose order. Perhaps the film and the ‘peace process’ were simply something to do, a way to have some purpose when the system seems to deny them everything else. The fact that all the young men were performers, and Dylan possessed of powerful charisma, may indicate that we shouldn’t treat this documentary as an accurate representation of real life.

It is a performance, however, that still has a lot to tell us about the state of Britain today. Because even if this absorbing film is propelled chiefly by the enactment of myth, its flaws as a real-life documentary point us towards the truth of the chaotic situation. We should not use the ‘gang’ label to distance ourselves from inner city violence. Far from being “criminality, pure and simple”, we are all a part of the complex system leading to it.

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